Tuesday 16 January 2018

Questions linger on many fronts as Ireland fail to graspgolden moment

The World Cup promised much but it was a reflection of our patchy form all year, says Brendan Fanning

Eight years ago this month, Eddie O'Sullivan sat at the top table in the media centre in Melbourne's Docklands Stadium and declared that Ireland had enjoyed a good World Cup. Roughly 40 minutes earlier, his team had been emptied by France in the quarter-final, buried under an avalanche of points in the opening half hour.

Strange as it may seem, few were arguing with his position, for the road to Melbourne had included a stop in the picturesque Adelaide Cricket Ground where, on a bone-hard surface, Ireland had managed to dig a hole deep enough to bury Argentina. And given what the Argies had done to us four years previously, it was like getting off death row.

For that 2003 campaign Declan Kidney, marginalised by Eddie O'Sullivan, had never looked comfortable. We think it's safe to say that at that stage in his career he didn't envisage himself at the top table in 2011, after Ireland had exited another World Cup at the quarter-final stage, and with the same question being asked of him.

So, was it a good World Cup?

Not good enough. We left for the tournament expecting Ireland to be beaten by Australia, to struggle past Italy, and then lose to South Africa in the quarter-finals. Instead the shape of the world changed after that tumultuous night in Auckland, and when they backed it up against Russia and Italy then circumstances demanded that Ireland step into the unknown -- the semi-finals.

The way it ended coloured everything. Losing to a confident Wales side playing well-structured rugby is not a cause for recrimination in itself, but when the defeat asked awkward questions of how the team was prepared then it emptied a tank which had been filled to the brim after the pool stages.

Ireland played 14 Tests in 2011. They played really well in three of them: England in March; Australia and Italy in the World Cup. In the games where all concerned were unsatisfied with the way the team played, there was a common theme: a failure either to create enough, or to crown what had been created. In effect, Ireland's attack had been consistently poor, emphasised by the comparison with an ever-improving defence.

It is impossible to attack without going forward -- you can't live off intercepts -- and despite knowing in advance what Wales would do to stop us playing, we were bankrupt when it came to thinking of a way to get forward. Either the coaching staff gave the players a good blueprint which they failed to follow, or else the blueprint was inadequate.

It will be another three weeks seemingly before Ireland's World Cup review gets under way but it will start at the finish -- the poor performance against Wales, and how it continued the trend of earlier in the year -- and then will come the recommendations for the future.

Will Kidney clean out the squad?

No. And nor should he. The moment you start picking a team for an event four years away is the moment you start giving out caps in hope rather than expectation. And in Test rugby that is never a good idea. Of the ageing squad that went to New Zealand, Geordan Murphy is the only one who will go immediately, for regardless of his age he is surplus to requirements now.

Will Leo Cullen (34 in January) be included in the next Six Nations squad? You'd like to think that there is a posse of young fellas trying to chase down Cullen and Donncha O'Callaghan (32), but there isn't.

Second row is a desert in Ireland. People fell over themselves with excitement at the performance of Ian Nagle for Munster against Australia last season and maybe that was reflective of just how barren is the scene there. Nagle looked like an oasis, but ask Tony McGahan who he would pick in the morning and the Mighty O's would be straight into the team sheet.

There is the prospect of shifting Stephen Ferris into the second row and freeing up a back row slot in an area that is lush and verdant compared to numbers four and five. That would move Rhys Ruddock and Dominic Ryan into the frame. They are the right age and have the right stuff.

Our shortage of cover at prop continues to be an accident waiting to happen. We have long been embarked in this country on a policy of blocking off key routes to Ireland-qualified players by hiring from abroad. Ulster's All Black John Afoa is the latest prop to join the line which in recent years has included Will Green, Ollie le Roux, Stan Wright, Heinke van der Merwe and CJ van der Linde in Leinster; Freddie Pucciariello and Wian du Preez in Munster; Bj Botha in Ulster (and now Munster); Robbie Morris in Connacht. This excludes the likes of imports Brett Wilkinson and Rodney Ah You, also in Connacht, who have become, or are en route to becoming, naturalised.

That is by no means a complete list of all the vehicles that have driven into Ireland, rather a flavour of the traffic.

In the circumstances it is remarkable that Ireland have developed a good scrum in the first place, and that it didn't crumble because of injury to Mike Ross or Cian Healy in the second.

Behind that scrum Kidney is looking at a whole midfield queuing for a bus pass. When Mick Galwey and Peter Clohessy were getting to the end of the line they had to get used to the idea that grooming their replacements was part of the sign-off package, and it needs to be the same with Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy.

As for Ronan O'Gara, the most appropriate way to see him off the premises is for Jonny Sexton to do it, not the coach. And that is up to Jonny Sexton.

It is a weakness when your 10 is a poor defender and doesn't have a running game, and it is a measure of O'Gara's strengths in other areas that he has built such a successful career despite these shortcomings. If you really want to expose him however then you give him static ball, deprive him of options, and force him to try and conjure up something clever. This is exactly what happened in Wellington last weekend. It wasn't his fault that there was so little happening around him, and in trying to rescue the situation he forced himself into the areas where he is weakest.

This is exactly what Warren Gatland had hoped for. Watching from across the Tasman, one man put it thus: "Gatland knew his enemy, because as you know only too well, he has slept in your tent."


The Captaincy . . .

If Kidney thought Brian O'Driscoll was the right man to lead Ireland into the World Cup, then he will think the same about the Six Nations next year. Fair enough.

But it's not critical to Ireland's future that O'Driscoll be the captain, and never has been. He won't be doing the job going to RWC 2015 -- neither will Kidney, we suspect -- and it makes sense to line up an alternative now, because O'Driscoll should be eased out rather than run into the ground and then scrapped.

One of those alternatives is not Jamie Heaslip.

Three years ago, Heaslip announced himself on the international stage with some top-quality performances in the Six Nations and quickly he had killed stone dead the contest with Denis Leamy.

Overnight the Leinster number eight became an automatic choice, and deservedly so. That form is long gone, replaced by mediocrity. There is nothing about Heaslip's demeanour that suggests his head is in the right place to play well, let alone lead the side.

Three options present themselves: Paul O'Connell, Rory Best and Rob Kearney. O'Connell will be 32 this week, but the upside to his woeful affair with injury last year is that it saved him miles on the clock. So it's conceivable that he will still be a starter in four years' time.

Best turned 29 in the summer and is now at his peak, which clearly won't be the case in four years. There is a lot to admire about the Ulster hooker whose form at the World Cup was very good.

Not long after the final whistle in Wellington last weekend, when he had parked significant pain to play, he fetched up in the mixed zone to answer questions honestly when it would have been easier to dodge the event altogether.

Or worse, to turn up with a puss on his face and a beer in his hand and to give stupid answers.

At 25, Kearney is in for the long haul and has the temperament for international rugby. He would do a decent job but Best is the frontrunner.

What about replacing Alan Gaffney?

At times last season it drove Gaffney berserk that the back play was so poor.

At other times in this World Cup he has seemed peripheral. Last week, an IRFU source said once the review was out of the way they expected Kidney to throw out a name for them to chew on.

Joe Schmidt is the obvious candidate, not least because in time it might sort out the issue of who will replace Kidney himself, much as Tony McGahan did in Munster.

Will it involve awkward juggling with Leinster? Of course it will. But it's doable. So get on with it.

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